Foreign Affairs

The Most Amoral Foreign Policy in Decades

It is becoming increasingly apparent that President Obama is conducting the most amoral foreign policy of any President in memory. In a most unexpected embrace of Realpolitik, the Obama Administration is basing our foreign relations purely on considerations of pragmatism and power.

The hallmarks of the Obama campaign and, arguably, the administration’s domestic policy—principle and compassion—are absent from the international equation. The fact that the administration’s pragmatism is often a ham-handed one—seeking to engage enemies unlikely to be impressed by such overtures—does not make it any less devoid of principle.

What makes a foreign policy “moral” is naturally open to debate. Yet certain factors are obvious. A moral foreign policy will inject ethical considerations into its calculus. The fate of the oppressed will be placed on the scales of policy along with the wealth and power of the oppressors. And, especially given our founding principles and Judeo-Christian roots, a moral foreign policy will focus on human rights in general and religious freedom in particular.

By contrast, the Obama Administration has been quick to bow to power and overlook atrocity. 

Our China policy highlights the pattern. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton set the tone early on when she stated, “Our pressing on those issues [Chinese human rights abuses] can’t interfere on the global economic crisis, the global climate-change crisis and the security crisis.” Following this view, President Obama refused to meet with the spiritual leader of China-occupied Tibet—the Dalai Lama—during that leader’s first visit to the United States. When the President finally did consent to meet the holy man, he held a brief meeting which was closed to the press.

Given the fact that it holds $800 billion of our debt, we have less leverage over China today than ever before. Yet the Obama Administration has been equally silent when it comes to less prosperous oppressors. For one long week, President Obama refused to comment as Iran’s Ahmadinejad stole an election and brutally crushed a peaceful popular protest. When the President finally did speak, his critique was tepid and toothless. Not only did we fail to aid Iran’s democratic opposition, but the administration actually cut funding for some of the most important human-rights watchdogs focused on Iran.

Our policy in Sudan—a nation guilty of genocide in Darfur—has been equally troubling. According to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, the pace of killing has recently increased in Darfur and is now higher than at any point since UN peacekeepers first arrived.

In other words, the genocide is not over. Yet the Obama Administration has failed to raise the issue in the United Nations. Instead, the administration has offered Sudan’s government a secret menu of “incentives and disincentives” to address their poor behavior. In Kristof’s words, “by appeasing the Sudanese government, the Obama Administration has in my view increased the risk of another catastrophic war.”

The same neglect characterizes the administration’s record on religious freedom. Although mandated by law, it took President Obama over 18 months to nominate an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. This appointment came only after the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom accused the President of completely neglecting this issue at a time when religious persecution is on the rise.

As Professor Thomas Farr noted, “The Obama Administration seems to have decided that other policy initiatives—outreach to Muslim governments, obtaining China’s cooperation, advancing gay rights—would be compromised by vigorous advocacy for religion freedom.”

Finally, there is Israel. American Presidents from Harry Truman up to George W. Bush have felt a special kinship with Israel based on our shared democracy, values, and Judeo-Christian roots. President Obama by most accounts lacks such feelings.

According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren recently stated that unlike his predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, President Obama “is not motivated by historical-ideological sentiments towards Israel but by cold interests and considerations.” While Ambassador Oren has predictably denied making this remark, it captures well the administration’s increasingly apparent rejection of any “special relationship” with Israel.

As we struggle to balance principle, pragmatism and politics, history can be a most edifying guide. For most of the 18th Century, sugar was the most important commodity in Europe. England funded much of its extensive empire through the sale of sugar cultivated in its West Indian colonies by African slaves. Thus when an evangelical member of Parliament named William Wilberforce began a campaign to abolish the slave trade in 1789, he was threatened and attacked by those who believed this man and his religious colleagues would bring down the empire.

Wilberforce persevered and, ultimately, triumphed. He succeeded in abolishing the slave trade and then slavery itself. Yet the British Empire survived and thrived. At the time, Wilberforce noted that, “There is a principle above everything that is political.” This is a precedent worth remembering today.


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